THE DETAILS: What causes inflammation? Inflammation is a response of your immune system, the surveillance force made up of tens of billions of cells that protect you from germs, bacteria, viruses, and injury. When you’ve had a toothache with gums that swelled, or a cut that got hot and red, you’ve experienced the healing work of your immune system. However, when your immune system is misguided, that inflammatory response can cause pain and dysfunction, and even lead to a chronic, life-threatening illness. For instance, if your immune system reacts to a benign substance, such as dust or pollen, you have an allergic response, with unpleasant symptoms like itchy, watery eyes and nasal congestion.
Even more dangerous is when your immune system produces silent, non-symptomatic inflammation. Unlike an allergic reaction, you may not be aware that this inflammatory response is happening. But the damage it causes is related to the development of diabetes, depression, hypertension, heart attack, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and multi-infarct dementia. Since the advent of immunizations and antibiotics in the 1930s, we’ve enjoyed a tremendous reduction in infectious diseases and a corresponding boost in longevity. However, the immune system seems to have found other targets for its inflammatory response. It can mount a response to chemicals and proteins in the foods we eat, to inert particles in the air we breathe, and even to the tissues of our own body.
WHAT IT MEANS: To learn more about inflammation and how to control it, I spoke with Mark Liponis, MD, my colleague and the corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch. Dr. Liponis’s two books, Ultrapevention (Atria, 2005) and Ultralongevity (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), detail the damage caused by unchecked inflammation and provide a variety of strategies to limit inflammation. “To stay healthy, it is essential to reduce unnecessary inflammation,” he says.
Dr. Liponis recommends these strategies for reducing inflammation:
• Get enough vitamin D. One of this vitamin’s many functions is to modulate the functioning of the immune system. Studies show that most Americans don't get enough of this vitamin. Current recommendations are for adults to get 400 IU of vitamin D a day, but some experts think that number is far too low. You doctor can check your vitamin D level with a simple blood test, and you can take vitamin D supplements to make sure you're getting what you need.
• Fight inflammation with plant compounds. Herbs and other plants that contain anti-inflammatory compounds include turmeric, green tea, basil, ginger, garlic, onion, and soy.
• Get regular aerobic exercise. Along with countless other benefits for your health, moderate aerobic exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect.
• Lose weight. Cytokines, chemicals that promote inflammation, are released from fat cells. By losing weight, or keeping at a weight that's healthy for you, you'll protect yourself from the effects of inflammation-causing fat cells.
• Try breathing exercises. Slow, rhythmic abdominal breathing helps keep the immune system strong, and also reduces stress, which is a major cause of inflammation.
• Eat a healthy diet. Avoid inflammation-causing foods, such as sugar and the saturated fat in fatty meat. Increase your consumption of fish, which is anti-inflammatory. You can also promote an anti-inflammatory response by consuming fish oils. Choose a fish oil supplement that contains relatively equal amounts of DHA and EPA. If you are a vegetarian, you can take DHA and EPA supplements derived from algae. If you are pregnant or have a new baby, you can support your child’s developing immune system through nursing; the richest source of DHA is actually breast milk.
• Get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation causes an inflammatory response, so make sure you get the sleep you need. Many sleep-related problems can be solved by improving your sleep skills rather than taking medication.
• Drink alcohol in moderation. If you drink alcohol, stick to one drink a day for women; one or two drinks a day for men. All alcohol, including beer, wine, and spirits, has a slight immunosuppressive effect. Red wine possesses a specific substance, resveratrol, that has an additional anti-inflammatory effect.
• Monitor your level of inflammation. A common blood test to detect inflammation is to check for C-reactive protein (CRP). Work with your doctor to determine and, if necessary, reduce your level of inflammation.
To learn more about inflammation and what you can do about it, check out Dr. Liponis’s website, www.ultralongevityprogram.com.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, and author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The breakthrough drug-free program for lasting relief from depression.